Will America Go the Way of Europe?
AMERICA’S MOVEMENT IN A EUROPEAN DIRECTION has become a repeated theme in American politics. During the 2012 presidential campaign, for example, Newt Gingrich, a Republican candidate and former Speaker of the House, said with reference to Obama: “I am for the Constitution; he is for European socialism.” In the New Hampshire primary debate, Mitt Romney said: “We are increasingly becoming like Europe. Europe is not working in Europe. It will never work here.”
What does it mean to become like Europe? The candidates quoted above were referring principally to the Eurozone crisis and Europe’s large welfare states and unsustainable sovereign debt. But the theme of Europeanization struck a chord in the United States because it encompassed much more than just the economy. As Samuel Gregg puts it in Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future, by becoming like Europe, people mean taking on a Europeanized “culture of expectations, beliefs, values and institutions that themselves are embedded in a history that is economic, but also more than economic.” The 2012 campaign debate was about the sense that America might be weakening its own cultural identity because it was coming to value that which is distinctive to Europe’s cultural identity. As Gregg writes: “[T]he intentions, principles, ideas and beliefs to which a given society ascribes high value” are the heart of a culture’s identity. Romney, along with many others, was fretting that European values might one day—given continued growth of the American welfare state and over-regulation of the economy—overtake American values.
Neoprogressivism and the Expanding State
William B. Allen describes this Europeanization process in a talk titled “Moral Frontiers: American National Character and the Future of Liberty.” Reflecting on the growing uncertainty in the United States about what it means to be an American, Allen asks whether we have “a national character,” and if so, “is it a lover of liberty?” To answer these questions, he casts a critical eye upon the neoprogressive view of liberty and human rights, a view shared broadly among Americans of the center-left, as outlined in the “Progressive Tradition Series” of the Center for American Progress. CAP is a left-of-center think tank that, according to its website, is “dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through progressive ideas and action.”
In his analysis of the CAP document, Allen deftly traces a development in the American center-left that is uncannily reminiscent of the European Union. A key principle of the American Founding is that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Allen argues that neoprogressives have abandoned “the idea of consent as fundamental to political legitimacy” and substituted “a welfare or enjoyment model of political legitimacy.” Neoprogressivism, he explains, “is formulated specifically to replace consent … with the welfare model, which holds that states are legitimate to the degree that governments extend enjoyments rather than to the extent that they are obedient to the commands of citizens.”
This trajectory mirrors that of the European Union to a remarkable extent, and in both the European Union and the United States the abandonment of the principle of legitimacy by consent is linked to relativism. If there is no such thing as objective truth or unchanging human nature, then, in principle, citizens cannot claim truly inalienable rights—rights that are rooted in human nature and objective truth, and that pre-exist government. In the absence of these rights, the human person is not a shaper of his own destiny, with government as his servant. Instead, it is the state—the government—that shapes the individual. The source of political legitimacy is thus not the consent of the governed, expressing their immutable dignity by their agency in their own governance, but rather the government’s success in providing its citizens with the good things in life. In a meaningless world, there can be nothing more than comfort and entertainment—eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
Allen goes on to state two corollaries of this profoundly relativistic view: (1) that essentially “unlimited government power is required to effectuate … civil rights”; and (2) that “human rights are to be protected, not for this or that particular people, but … for people globally.”
Why do these principles arise from the relativistic foundation of neoprogressivism? Because once objective truth has been jettisoned and the government as provider of enjoyments becomes the accepted model, then those enjoyments become entitlements and the entitlements become rights, and the rights inflate until they become human rights. And with no authoritative narrative to fall back on, the standard for determining what human rights are is up for grabs. Human rights must be, and will be, determined by an elite—none other than those who hold political power. Once one has given up the idea of objective truth to embrace relativism, power can be attained and held only by coercion, since there is no generally acknowledged objective basis for persuasion. In principle, no relativist is far from Mao Zedong’s famous dictum: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Just as ominously, there is no authoritatively objective basis for limiting political power once attained. There is no truth above and independent of the political authority that could limit it.
Neoprogressivism is formulated specifically to replace consent with the welfare model, which holds that states are legitimate to the degree that governments extend enjoyments rather than to the extent that they are obedient to the commands of citizens.
So government as provider expands, as if by sleight of hand, to government as master. And with the global reach of communications, travel, commerce, and ideas, government as master expands geographically as well. Just as government power to determine what human rights are is in principle unlimited, so also it becomes impossible to limit the power of government—or governance—to a certain geographic area or people. National sovereignty becomes—again, in principle—an impermissible limit on the elites’ power to decide for everyone everywhere what is just and true. In Europe, the migrant crisis is merely the latest illustration of this: The national sovereignty of European Union member states and the misgivings of everyday people about accepting unprecedented numbers of immigrants who hold a very different worldview cannot be allowed to stand in the way of welcoming Middle Easterners into the brave new EU world of tolerance, diversity, and human rights. Global governance thus unmasks itself not as a benign desire to improve the lot of humanity, but instead as an unlimited power grab to define truth and justice, under the banner of “universal human rights.”
It is important to emphasize that I am talking here about the “in principle,” the logical ramifications of what Allen’s neoprogressives and the global governancers believe. Most neoprogressives and global governancers are sincerely convinced that they are for human freedom and democracy. And we might have the good fortune never to see the destructive potential of the logical ramifications play out to its full extent. Nevertheless, although the “in principle” may never be fully translated into reality, it manifests symptoms in the real world that help us recognize it for what it is. The symptoms we can see in the United States are similar to those in the European Union.
First, we have in the United States a growing affinity for a European-style social democracy of sorts, with a large welfare state, and an increasing distaste for the free market. There is a growing belief that government can and should make life pleasant, provide comfort, even foster a feeling of community and give us a sense of purpose. And the more that government attempts to provide all this, the more that people demand as a matter of entitlement. If Mitt Romney’s famous gaffe about 47 percent of Americans receiving more in welfare and government services than they pay in taxes is anywhere near true, then the oversized welfare state has already done severe damage to the ideal of the free citizen fulfilling his responsibilities to provide for himself.
And, as Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart amply documents, it all goes much further than just the extent of government intervention in the free market, or the balance between individual freedom and government power. It has to do with the entire culture. Just as Gregg and Allen do, Murray homes in on the centrality of freedom. He illuminates the connection between personal freedom and personal responsibility as the basis of a fulfilled life, and thus highlights the destructive moral and cultural consequences that follow from the loss of freedom: “All of these good things in life—self-respect, intimate relationships, and self-actualization—require freedom in the only way that freedom is meaningful: freedom to act in all arenas of life coupled with responsibility for the consequences of those actions. The underlying meaning of that coupling—freedom and responsibility—is crucial.”
On the basis of this key connection between freedom and responsibility, Murray then analyzes how excessive government intervention in people’s lives, a la Europe, had contributed to the devastating social breakdown that he describes among what he dubs America’s “new lower class”:
When the government intervenes to help, whether in the European welfare state or in America’s more diluted version, it not only diminishes our responsibility for the desired outcome, it enfeebles the institutions through which people live satisfying lives. … When the government says it will take some of the trouble out of doing the things that families and communities evolved to do, it inevitably takes some of the action away from families and communities. The web frays, and eventually disintegrates.
This, he believes, is the danger to the United States of a process of Europeanization that is already well underway.
In the United States as in Europe, the utopia that entices is a soft utopia. It emerges out of the overriding desire for ease and comfort. It is the utopia of civilizational exhaustion.
Murray allows that “Europe has proved that countries with enfeebled family, vocation, community, and faith can still be pleasant places to live,” but he decries the meaninglessness of what he characterizes as the “view of life” of many Europeans. Echoing Allen, he locates the roots of this view of life in the pursuit of pleasurable ease and the shriveling of freedom and responsibility that has resulted from the interventionist welfare state. Murray calls it the Europe Syndrome: “The purpose of life is to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, and the purpose of government is to make it as easy as possible to while away the time as pleasantly as possible—the Europe Syndrome.” Is America beginning to suffer from the Europe Syndrome? As Allen, Murray, and Gregg show, the signs are abundant.
The Loss of Faith and Civilizational Exhaustion
More basic than the abdication of personal responsibility is the loss of religion and tradition that is occurring in America, even though it is still much more religious than Europe. Over the past generation, the percentage of “nones,” Americans who describe themselves as unaffiliated with any religion, has grown tremendously. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, 19.6 percent of Americans were “nones” in 2012—up from 15.3 percent only five years before. If one goes back a bit further, the contrast is even sharper. In 1972 the General Social Survey, one of the more frequently used sources of social science information, reported that 5 percent of Americans gave their religious preference as “none.” By 1990, that figure had almost doubled, reaching 9 percent. By 2012, fully 20 percent of Americans said they preferred no religion.
And of course, the void left by the loss of religion must inevitably be filled by a post-Christian moral paradigm. In Europe and increasingly in the United States, this is seen perhaps most clearly in the transformative and liberationist human rights paradigm, with its rejection of the constraints imposed by religion and tradition. On both sides of the Atlantic, this bursting of Judeo-Christian moral boundaries has been most evident in the area of sexuality. The Supreme Court has now mandated the acceptance of gay marriage throughout the United States. More and more, in the name of nondiscrimination, freedom of conscience is being denied to those—usually traditional Christians—who do not wish to participate in the culture’s fawning embrace of LGBT rights.
In the United States as in Europe, the utopia that entices is a soft utopia. It emerges out of the overriding desire for ease and comfort. It is not a revolutionary utopia of the disenfranchised and discontented, burning with indignation at the injustice that they believe they are suffering. Rather, it is a utopia of the comfortable, whose primary interest is health and wealth, and who seek a government that will take care of everything for them in return for substantial tax payments. It is the utopia of civilizational exhaustion.
And no temporary comforts can compensate for the weariness. An exhausted civilization, sapped of its clarity of conviction, loses its resolve as well. Without a binding idea of truth to hold a civilization together, the will to defend that civilization and its way of life quickly weakens.
As Mark Steyn argues in America Alone, Europe has long exhibited that loss of resolve, and so America has been left alone to defend the Western heritage. In his bracing jeremiad, Steyn laments “the larger forces at play in the developed world that have left Europe too enfeebled to resist its remorseless transformation into Eurabia,” in particular: “(1) demographic decline; (2) the unsustainability of the advanced Western social-democratic state; and (3) civilizational exhaustion.” Like Allen, Murray, and Gregg, Steyn ties cultural exhaustion—recognizable primarily by moral and philosophical relativism and a rejection of the concept of objective truth—to the interventionist welfare state whose main function is to increase the comfort and ease of its citizens. In Steyn’s analysis, “the enervated state of the Western world, the sense of civilizational ennui, of nations too mired in cultural relativism to understand what’s at stake,” is closely related to the loss of freedom and responsibility in the modern welfare state, which “has gradually annexed all the responsibilities of adulthood—health care, child care, care of the elderly—to the point where it’s effectively severed its citizens from humanity’s primal instincts, not least the survival instinct.”
Taking the line of argument to the geopolitical level, Steyn explains Europe’s lack of resolve to defend itself as a consequence of being able to rely on America as “a kind of geopolitical sugar daddy.” The United States, by paying for the defense of Europe, sought to prevent a reemergence of the traditional rivalries for power among European nations, “Nice idea,” Steyn remarks. “But it also absolved them of the traditional responsibilities of nationhood, turning the alliance into a dysfunctional sitcom family, with one grown-up presiding over a brood of whiny teenagers.” Now, Steyn’s “wrinkly teenagers” are risking what might turn out with time to be something close to cultural suicide by accepting hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim immigrants and doing their best to ignore the fact that jihadism in Europe might thereby be greatly strengthened. It is a tragic revelation of the true soft face of soft utopianism: while EU elites are laudably seeking to be charitable, the European supranational dream turns out to be little more than a symptom of cultural exhaustion and a self-destructive lack of resolve.
With a similar abdication of personal responsibility to a nanny state taking place in America, as cultural relativism grows apace, there may soon be no one left with the resolve to defend the West and the way of life we have attained. The world as we know it, Steyn observes, depends on “whether America can summon the will to shape at least part of the emerging world. If not, then it’s also the end of the American moment, and the dawn of the new Dark Ages … .”
From the Schuman Declaration’s agenda of “world peace” that lies at the heart of the European project, to Obama’s irresolution as the Middle East descends into terrorist chaos and Iran receives U.S. permission to become a nuclear power, what has emerged is not peace, but the delusional soft utopia of civilizational exhaustion. “‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” Meanwhile, Paris, Brussels, and Nice bury their dead.
Self-Government and the Splendor of Objective Truth
What is the remedy for civilizational exhaustion? It is not to be found in reducing the size of government or taking a more belligerent stance against jihadism or other international threats. The issue—what is at stake—is much larger than that. The struggle between liberal democracy and global governance is, at the deepest level, a struggle to define the human person and the purpose of human life. Most fundamentally, it is a struggle between the belief in and the denial of objective truth. In broad terms, the advocates of robust liberal democracy in the West come down on the side of objective truth and of the Judeo-Christian view of an unchanging human nature embedded in tradition, religion, and family. The partisans of global governance come down on the side of a radically secularist, post-modern commitment to the radical autonomy of the individual and the virtually unlimited malleability of human nature according to each person’s choice, independent of traditional institutions and social connections. But this radical autonomy depends on the rejection of objective truth in favor of the individual’s will.
The elevation of individual choice over objective truth ends up destroying the freedom to chose of everyone except those who manage to positions themselves as gatekeepers who decide what truth is.
Ironically, the elevation of individual choice over objective truth ends up destroying the freedom to choose of everyone except those who manage to position themselves as gatekeepers who decide what the truth is. Once objective truth has been abandoned, the state becomes the ultimate arbiter of which version of truth is to be enforced. If there is no objective truth about human freedom that limits and binds the state, there is nothing left to protect the individual—or the mediating institutions of civil society in which individuals gather together of their own volition—from the encroachments of the state, or of the global networks of governance. In Europe, a growing and vital Islam could plausibly change the game completely, eclipsing the European Union’s current infatuation with individual autonomy and global governance by positing an alternative that demands a response much more real and resolute than the reimagining of the world as a supranational utopia of peace and harmony.
There is another irony: An ideology based on the revolt against truth is philosophically weak, because it is so patently out of line with reality. It lacks credibility and cannot argue its own case, and thus does not willingly tolerate any ideological rivals. If it is to survive, it must be imposed universally—not just in one nation or another, not just in the United States or Europe but globally.
What Is to Be Done?
The global governance ideology can subvert American democracy only if we let it. The same goes for the Europeans. Europe is America’s most important ally. And those who think it absurd to suggest that America might be following Europe into the soft utopia are laboring under a very shortsighted historical perspective. America has always been and remains as much a follower of Europe as vice versa. Nearly everything that America built was built upon the European heritage. American democracy, prosperity, and the human flourishing that our society makes possible are to a great extent due to our application of the achievements of Europe to our American context. America owes an immeasurable debt to Europe.
And it is not too late. Europe is still a wonderful place. With its established democracies, with the prosperity and well-being enjoyed by the great majority of everyday Europeans in the freedom to live dignified and beneficent lives, with its majestic architecture and its spectacular achievements in the arts, science, and technology, the continent still lives and breathes the unrivaled heritage of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. The good Europe, the old and distinguished Europe that birthed Western civilization, is still alive and kicking. And this despite the increasingly uneasy coexistence with the new Europe, with its post-Christian bipolarity that mixes despair and exhaustion with a thinly veiled messianic utopianism.
What is needed—in Europe and increasingly in the United States—is a reformation, a return to a humble respect for the truths and traditions at the root of Western culture, to the indispensable foundations of self-government. This does not entail the end of the European Union. The European Union exists, and it could be a force for much greater good in the world. A reformed European Union of sovereign nation-states could build on the tremendous accomplishments for which the European idea deserves a share of the credit, especially the achievement of an unprecedentedly close and amicable cooperation among European nations. The European Union, along with North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other factors, shares responsibility for a continental peace so stable that it is almost impossible to imagine another war among the nations that fought each other so savagely in the first half of the 20th century. But democratic sovereignty is the only basis for realizing the positive potential of the European idea. Neither the Europeans nor we Americans can build justice, peace, and prosperity upon a deception. Global governance is a lie, and it will turn on those who succumb to its spell.
We have a choice between self-government and the slow suicide of liberal democracy. We can either continue the advance toward the hubristic, post-democratic soft utopia of global governance, or reclaim and strengthen the democratically accountable self-government of the free peoples of the West. And if we choose self-government, we can sustain it only within the bounds of the truth about human nature, the manifold but limited possibilities of politics, and a sober recognition of what is evil and what is good.